The era of Reconstruction in the United States that began in the 1860s has a self-explanatory name. Reconstruction is the time of dramatic and influential changes when the whole state was reformed multiple times and on many levels. One of the aspects of the life of the American population that got affected the most was equity. Americans went from universal freedom during the Reconstruction to limiting the rights of former slaves by the Gilded Age because white leaders never recognized equality.
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At the onset of the Era of Reconstruction, the issue of freedom became dominant in the United States. In fact, at the beginning of this period, after the abolition of slavery – the reforms have made a significant positive impact on the black population, as the United States was declared a wholly free country1. The freedom they acquired enabled them to travel, own pets, purchase guns and alcohol, hold gatherings without white supervision, reunite with families, and get employment2. However, the black population remained underprivileged compared to white citizens due to poor income.
By the end of the Reconstruction, change of local authorities occurred. President Johnson positioned himself as a supporter of the freedom in its new quality; however, the “free” local governments he established were successful and bringing back the former social division. The rich white elite came to power once again, welcomed by Johnson, and very soon the former slaves found themselves “free, but free only to labor”3 In addition, the development of industry soon attracted many immigrants – new laborers who were forced to do very dirty and dangerous jobs for low wages.
That way, it is possible to notice that the United States elite ended up not freeing the slaves but gaining much more than it had before the Civil War. The overall labor system in place at the end of the 1800s was very similar to slavery4.
By the beginning of the Gilded Age, social freedoms and benefits were distributed unevenly in the US. The vast majority of the industrial workers were deprived of opportunities for financial growth due to extremely low wages keeping millions of laborers “on the edge of poverty”5 and inhumane working conditions6.
At the same time, the ruling elite and the business owners became richer by the year feeding off the cheap workforce and expanding their businesses supported by the laborers made helpless and dependent on the jobs due to very poor income and the need to survive7. Therefore, in reality, equality in liberty did not mean equality in distribution8. The depowered groups of the population in the United States during the time of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age had to learn this lesson the hard way.
To sum up, Reconstruction sounds like a happy time that brought about changes for the better. However, the reality was much direr because the freed slaves found themselves in terrible living, financial, and social conditions, and so did some other depowered groups of the population such as immigrant workers. The income gap between the rich and the poor was striking; and overall, the social situation in the United States during the Gilded Era was rather similar to that during the times of slavery when powerless laborers were exploited for the benefit of the rich elite.
- Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!: An American History (New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 556.
- Ibid., 557.
- Ibid., 561.
- Foner, 561.
- Ibid., 622.
- “Tirangle Shirtwaist Fire 1911,” YouTube video, 53:17, posted by “jeepsrule68”. Web.
- Foner, 622.